O’Gara: We create fan theories in order to live

The thing, of course, about a work of art — like a movie, book, TV show or song — is that it can only do so much. We, as consumers of culture stuff, want to be entertained, enlightened and engaged, and if that’s ever going to happen we have to commit, which, as it is with any commitment, requires a charitable amount of trust. This generosity of trust is what allows for interpretation, the alchemy by which an entertainment product transforms into a force for life and humanity. Trust and commitment — these let us think that a work of art could possibly teach us something we never knew about the world, about ourselves.

As it happens, those tendencies — trust and commitment — that allow one to absorb and contemplate art are the same that lead one to create art. This is why all artists steal; as Picasso said, it takes art to beget art. However, artists have been doing their thing, stealing from each other, for thousands of years now, leaving the artistic scene parched. This creative exhaustion, coupled with the idea of “fandom” (trust and commitment taken to radical lengths), has brought forth a democratized culture in which the new art form is interpretation and the new artists are theory-saturated fans with Internet access.

This is all an admittedly over-lettered and academic way of saying that I saw a Reddit thread about fan theories and thought it was really cool. Like, the babies in “Rugrats” are figments of Angelica’s imagination? I had no idea! Or, in “The Departed,” Jack Nicholson is the dad of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio? What the!

Since Reddit is Reddit, there is a lot of “Star Wars”-related theories: the Empire was really good (a favorite among neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard); characters have to make eye contact with Luke Skywalker in order to become a Jedi ghost; R2-D2 and Chewbacca are the real protagonists of the “Star Wars” saga. @@http://www.weeklystandard.com/@@

There seem to be two things a fan theory must have, to be Reddit-approved at least. Some shock value is absolutely essential (everybody in “Ed, Edd ‘n’ Eddy” was dead? No way!), and the theory has to compel one to re-watch or re-read the work in question, to catch all the clues the theorizer noticed first. This is where the art comes in.

A while ago a friend of mine, a University student named Noah Phillips-Edwards, told me (this is the sort of stuff we talk about) why he hated the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” so much: “Bueller is a psychopath — an aggressively narcissistic pathological liar who is good at faking emotions yet rarely exhibits real ones. He’s a white-collar criminal in the making.” @@http://www.uoregon.edu/findpeople/person/Noah*[email protected]@

After hearing this rather harsh assessment (Ferris Bueller is just a glib jerk, not a psycho, I think), I saw that movie differently. The Bueller-is-a-psychopath theory became a sort of augmented reality, or augmented fiction rather, that layered itself over the narrative, creating something new and engrossing as a work of art totally separate from the original, non-interpreted, non-augmented film.

Joan Didion once wrote that we, as a species, “tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I humbly correct Didion: we create in order to live. Why do so many (on Reddit and elsewhere) focus on things so small, like movies or books or shows, and offer theories about how and why those things work? They probably won’t get a million dollars or a Nobel Prize for their speculation. Why do they — we — do it then? We don’t tell these stories just because they’re fun, but because they’re necessary. @@http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/d/joan_didion/[email protected]@

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